2011 Year in Review: Notable Supreme Court Decisions

 @DanRivoli
on December 22 2011 1:57 PM

The Supreme Court spent the end of 2011 setting up a blockbuster docket during the 2012 election season, deciding to take high-profile cases such as challenges to the Affordable Care Act and Arizona's anti-immigration law.

But the Supremes made headlines in the first half of 2011 with notable decisions on speech, corporate personhood, and the ability of consumers and employees to take on major companies.

Here is the International Business Times' round up of the top five Supreme Court decisions of the year to tide court watchers over until 2012.

Dukes v. Wal-Mart

This 5-4 decision in the Dukes v. Wal-Mart sex discrimination suit against the largest private employer in the U.S. was a blow to the 1.6 million women who won the right to proceed with their class action.

The high court in June rejected the female employees' argument that Wal-Mart had a uniform corporate culture that permitted bias against women by giving discretion to thousands of managers on making promotion and pay decisions.

The decision dismantled the nationwide class, finding that there was no commonality between the female employees scattered throughout America's Wal-Mart-owned stores.

Merely showing that Wal-Mart's policy of discretion has produced an overall sex-based disparity does not suffice, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the majority opinion.

The lawyers for the women, however, are back with a slew of new sex discrimination lawsuits that their lawyers say are tailored to address the opinion.

Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T

The Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision legitimized the idea of corporate personhood by removing campaign finance restrictions on businesses. But the court March 1 sided with the Federal Communications Commission in objecting to AT&T's claim to corporate personhood.

AT&T had attempted to block the FCC from releasing corporate documents under a Freedom of Information Act request, citing the law's personal privacy exemption.

The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, disagreed that the personal privacy extended to corporations, who are persons in a legal context.

In parsing the word personal, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote dictionaries ... suggest that 'personal' does not ordinarily relate to artificial 'persons' such as corporations.

When it comes to the word 'personal,' there is little support for the notion that it denotes corporations, even in the legal context, he added.

AT&T v. Concepcion

When Vincent and Liza Concepcion sued AT&T for charging a $30 sales tax on free phones, they joined a class action with other consumers claiming false advertising, despite signing service contracts demanding arbitration.

The class of consumers relied on a California Supreme Court decision that found such class action waivers unconscionable.

But the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling April 27, found that a federal arbitration law preempted the California law, meaning that the Concepcions, like other consumers, would have to individually fight AT&T on a $30 charge.

Good luck in small claims court.

Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting

The Supreme Court's May 26 decision in the Chamber of Commerce case--the ruling upheld Arizona's employment-related immigration law from 2007--received a new round of attention when the justices decided to hear a challenge to the state's notorious immigration enforcement law, SB1070.

Arizona's SB1070 is more comprehensive and expansive than the state law the Supreme Court upheld in Whiting, which suspended or revoked licenses of companies found to have hired undocumented workers.

The high court, in a 5-3 decision, found that the state law was not preempted by federal immigration law prohibiting states from punishing employers who hire undocumented workers. The Supreme Court decided that Arizona's law fell into the federal immigration law's exception for regulating licensing matters.

Opponents of SB1070 say the Whiting case is just a reading of state and federal statutes; too narrow to be applied to the latest immigration case before the justices. But proponents of Arizona's tough new law contend that the Whiting ruling affirms their argument that states can institute laws that cooperate with federal immigration regulation.

Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association

Violent video games were the outrage du jour in the 1990s . Mortal Kombat, a fighting game that rewarded players with the opportunity to kill a defeated opponent, sparked Congressional hearings on video game violence.

Video games have come a long way since Mortal Kombat. The outrage has subsided and their status as a protected form of speech under the First Amendment was enshrined thanks to a June 27 Supreme Court ruling. The 7-2 decision delivered a fatal blow to a California law that banned sale or rental of violent video games to minors.

Like the protected books, plays, and movies that preceded them, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the opinion, video games communicate ideas-and even social messages-through many familiar literary devices ... and through features distinctive to the medium.

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